August 15, 2004
Julia Child, R.I.P.
Julia Child, who played a major role in changing the way Americans think about, prepare and eat food, has died at the ripe old age of 91, after a lifetime of urging Americans to go ahead and use butter in their sauces and fry lardons to render some pork fat in which to fry the beginnings of a stew. Take that, health Nazis!
Hers was a fascinating and busy life. All of us who have enjoyed the diversification of American food preferences from sole reliance on the meatloaf/roast beef/bland mainstream traditional cookery (not that there's anything wrong with it) to the cornucopia of ethnic cuisines prepared with attention to flavor, that we enjoy today, owe her a debt of gratitude.
I had the great good fortune to be raised by a mother who was a culinary adventuress, a woman who took Chinese cooking lessons in the 1950s. So, when Julia's cooking show debuted, I immediately knew that she was cut from the same cloth as Mom. Go for new taste experiences, don't be afraid of mistakes, and if it doesn't work out, a little extra wine with the meal will cure a multitude of ills — all were lessons I'd learned at the family dinner table even before I laid eyes on Julia.
I had the opportunity to meet and converse with Julia a few times in the early 1970s, and found her an utterly unpretentious, genuine, and charming person. At the time, I was semi—impoverished graduate student, who lived in a slummy student apartment a few blocks from Julia and husband Paul's gorgeous Colonial mansion on one of the best streets in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Equidistant from us was Savenor's Butcher Shop, an unpretentious—looking store, which happened to be the finest butcher in the greater Boston area. You would never know it to look at the shabby store front.
Jack Savenor, the master butcher, took a kindly interest in me. Probably, it was because I would come in and ask for the cheapest scraps he had. Thanks to Mom, I was accustomed to the idea that exotic parts of animals scorned by most Westerners could be extremely delicious, if properly and respectfully cooked — perhaps braised, or baked in a slow oven, or stewed in an acidic sauce. By that time, I had already studied Chinese cooking on my own, taking lessons in Taiwan, and had revealed my background of studying in Asia to Jack. He was a bucher who approached animal musculature with the perspective of a surgeon and a scholar, and was quite interested in the ways butchers in Japan and China divided up cows and other animals for sale to the public. We chatted frequently.
One day, a very tall woman came into the shop while I was talking to Jack. He immediately introduced us. I was flabbergasted to be staring up at the face of Julia Child. I had no idea she was so tall — six feet four inches, I think. As I stammered a few words about how much I had benefited from her work, she responded to me as if I were her peer. No state secrets from her days in the OSS, and no deep mysteries of cuisine were ever revealed to me, but she was perfectly happy to talk about the rigors of taping her shows, and relate funny incidents about dropping food, or her producer's frantic efforts to keep the production schedule intact.
From time to time, if we passed on the street, she would even wave or nod. I felt honored.
Now, this is the kind of celebrity I can relate to: someone who takes a young stranger on his own terms, and hasn't the merest hint of an overgrown ego. A genuine human being.
Julia Child has undoubtedly gone to a better place. I can't even imagine the kitchen she has at her disposal now, but I'll bet they are glad she's finally arrived there.
Thomas Lifson is editor and publisher of American Thinker.